Food Service & Agriculture, Sustainability, and Travel & Tourism

Harsh winters taking toll on wineries

October 16, 2015
| By Pat Evans |
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For a young Michigan wine industry, the past two winters have been tough.

The market has yet to see the effect of what two exceptionally cold winters have on the wine industry, but the weather in The Mitten hasn’t been nice to grapes.

In the winter of 2013-14, the “polar vortex” froze Lake Michigan and the bays surrounding the Grand Traverse area. Similar cold weather settled on the state’s west coast.

About 40 percent of the state’s grapes are grown in Southwest Michigan and another 40 percent in Northwest Michigan, said Linda Jones, program manager at the Michigan Grape and Wine Council.

“When the water freezes over, we lose an advantage for our fruit industry,” Jones said. “(The lake) acts as a heat sink and keeps our landmass a bit warmer. Once the lake freezes over, you don’t have that.”

Different varieties of grapes handle cold differently, but many can only survive a few hours of deep cold at a time. Extended periods of cold break down the interior of the vine and cause growth problems the following year.

The polar vortex massively reduced the grape crop in Michigan — likely by 50 percent — costing the industry approximately $3.5 million, Jones said.

For consumers, the hard winters have yet to make an impact on their wine purchases, as most wineries are still selling 2012 and 2013 vintages — and 2013 was one of the best growing years in the state’s history, Jones said.

“Unlike a hard cider, you don’t see the wine the same year as the grape,” she said.

She said Southwest Michigan is faring a bit better this year, with about 75 percent of the grape crop bouncing back. In Northwest Michigan, however, it’s a different story.

The Grand Traverse area suffered a late frost in May when the grape vines were at their vulnerable budding stage, and then heavy winds and a hailstorm struck Aug. 5. The late frost dropped the expected crop of 60 percent to about 30 percent.

The hailstorm cut the remaining expectation in half, Jones said.

“There are some wineries who are saying it’s not worth harvesting,” Jones said. “What is there is high quality. Depending on the variety and the location, some growers are doing very well. Some are getting nothing.”

For many of the state’s wineries, it was the first time they’d had to deal with such extreme cold.

“The last weather this severe was 1993-94,” said Jones. “Many of the wineries and vineyards in the state had not even planted at that time.”

On Old Mission Peninsula, Chateau Grand Traverse experienced the extreme weather more than 20 years ago. The winery’s president, Eddie O’Keefe, said its longevity allowed them to prepare for this time — it was founded more than 40 years ago.

O’Keefe said for a production winery like Chateau Grand Traverse, diversification is key. The winery has a line of fruit wines, a line of wines made from grapes from its property, and a line of wines made from grapes from the region or sourced out of state.

He said this winter forced the winery to add additional grape growers to its sourcing list. Other wineries also likely are thinking of diversifying their product lines, O’Keefe said.

“They’re going to have to re-aim their efforts a little bit,” he said. “We’ll also see some of the smaller, eclectic items go by the wayside.”

Jones said some wineries are blending grapes to have a larger inventory of a single wine to sell to retailers. Others wineries are bringing in grape juice from out of state, especially Riesling from Washington.

“They bring it in, ferment it and have full control over that fermentation,” she said, adding the labeling will be different because wines are labeled with geographic distinction.

The severe cold also has forced growers to figure out ways to prevent losses in the future. O’Keefe is confident Chateau Grand Traverse is diversified enough to survive, but Jones said smaller, newer wineries are experimenting with snow insulation techniques.

There is also experimentation with grape varieties that are hardier for states like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and some areas already are being planted in high volumes, Jones said.

The fall has been mild, and Jones said grapes are still on the vines, allowing them to ripen further. The 2015 grape production is not yet known, but its quality should be superb, Jones said.

Hard winters hamper the growth of Michigan’s reputation as a wine state, O’Keefe said.

“A lot of newer wineries that were getting into new markets may need to pull back a little,” he said. “It stymies our ability to grow as a brand. As you’re trying to expand into new markets, this forces you to stop and maintain. You have to start building it later, after (taking) some time to recover.”

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